Learning Differences: Dyscalculia

The words are often said, “I’m just not good at math.” There is a nod and an understanding behind those words. It is believed that there are people who are much more proficient at reading, and therefore have trouble computing, memorizing and problem-solving. During those conversations, it seems rational to say, “Math is a difficult subject. You are not alone.” Through research and education, dyslexia has become known as a common and well-understood learning difference. Why wouldn’t children who have difficulties with math not be just as common, or even exceed the known percentage of children diagnosed with dyslexia? Dr. Edward Hubbard, an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes, “Attitudes toward math may play a part not just in our overall lack of dyscalculia awareness, but in the fact that dyscalculia research is at least two decades behind dyslexia research.”

What is Dyscalculia?

A child with a brain-based condition called “dyscalculia” has difficulty grasping basic math concepts, such as that two sets of three different objects are the same. In their minds, it doesn’t make any sense. Children with dyscalculia become unsure when to apply their knowledge in solving problems. It is easy to see why dyscalculia has been nicknamed “math dyslexia.”

Warning Signs

As a child ages, the warning signs become more apparent; however, parents can detect problems as early as preschool. While every child is not going to match a textbook definition, here are a few key questions:  

Before the age of five, did your child have trouble

  • learning how to count in order without skipping or forgetting numbers, and successfully counting objects?
  • recognizing numbers and their spellings, such as that “2” is also “two?”
  • relating numbers with an object; for example, realizing there were eight slices in an orange or that he was playing with five cars?
  • recognizing patterns and sorting items by color, shape, or size?
  • playing games that involved counting or numbers?

Elementary or Middle School

The warning signs by elementary school are recognizable and worrisome for parents. Beyond your child functioning in a mathematics classroom, there may be a feeling that he or she is lost in our world dependent on math concepts. He or she will have difficulty

  • differentiating between his left and right hand, and reaching destinations without getting lost.
  • remembering phone numbers.
  • understanding money, estimating the total cost, and making exact change.
  • measuring ingredients to make a simple recipe

Researchers are able to confirm that children with dyscalculia cannot picture objects in their minds; therefore, this feeling of failure affects a child’s social skills, sense of direction, physical coordination and time management.

What is the Solution?

Documentation is very important. No matter if your child is a preschooler or an elementary student, the notes recorded by your child’s teacher and you will be beneficial in moving forward. With learning disabilities, other diagnoses, such as ADHD and dyslexia, may interfere with a second learning difference, which is a common occurrence. (If your child has ADHD, it can be harder to determine whether his or her math issues are caused by dyscalculia, ADHD, or both.)

With your explicit notes in hand and after a medical exam, the doctor may refer you to a neurologist or educational psychologist. With a referral, the school team, comprised of teachers, the school psychologist and learning support coordinators, can all come together to determine a workable Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.  


Yes, with the help of the right strategies, your child can feel more confident using everyday math.

  • Children need concrete examples associated with real life. Visual aids, such as number lines and counters will help a child see, touch and manipulate through action.
  • Using graph paper will help a child keep numbers in alignment.
  • “Chunking” is a process that breaks new lessons into smaller parts. Children with dyscalculia need to see how different skills relate to new concepts.
  • Review is necessary before moving on to a new skill.
  • Small-group instruction can help a child focus his or her attention and feel more comfortable talking through each step.
  • Create a system to help your child keep track of time.

The Comforts of Home

Isn’t learning easier in the comfort of home? Yes, your child may be less anxious and noticeably relaxed, especially in sitting down at their own homework station or playing a family game. One thing children with dyscalculia will need is a schedule; therefore, discuss what is happening now, and what is to come. A timer may also help your child keep track of time. With the help of school and open communication between the teachers and you, the new response, in time, will be, “Look at you! You’re doing great at math! Keep going. Don’t stop!”

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